The Bubble Visor blog has done a marvelous dive into the Dutch National Archives for a series of posts on The Netherland’s relationship with the motorcycle. Naturally, I was most interested in the racing photography, but they dig much deeper into imagery of motorcycle police, recreational riders—the complete gamut. I’ve picked a few favorites here but click on through to each and every post for the complete curation.
Motor racing of every flavor has a rich tradition of inspiring artists but there seems to be something in particular about cycle racing that leads artists towards beautiful narratives.
Perhaps it’s simply because a motorcyclist’s body is exposed: Think of a cycle racer aggressively leaning into a turn, shoulders set, head leading the body, the tension between action and balance. It immediately evokes a mood, an attitude; the form just lends itself to storytelling. Even if we’re not trying to tell a story, the orientation conjures one in our minds.
Automotive artists may feel compelled to exaggerate the driving position of the pilot to help convey that mood. But with the cycle racer, the motorcyclist is so much a part of the form of the racing machine that the artist can naturally, or even unintentionally, combine them.
Either way, there’s so much absolute brilliance in these comic-like ligne claire illustrations that it both makes me want to hit the track and pick up the brush.
See the enormous collection of art pieces, advertising, and illustration in BullitMcQueen’s Flickr set.
I think the Johnny Cash song featured in part of this 1979 film sums it up better than I could:
Now I forgot about yesterday and let tomorrow bring what may
Let everything be as it will be
Cause all I need is my machine and a little high octane gasoline
And get your hands off me I’m rollin’ free
An amazing set of images shot in 1914 by photographer J.R. Eike of the St. Louis Motordrome board track and publicity shots of some of the racers. These scans are pulled from the original glass plate negatives, which languished for years in the garage of a relative of the photographer and were very nearly discarded before being rescued by collector Tom Kempland.
The photographer’s notes describe the St. Louis boardtrack as a portable Motordrome, but it sure looks like it has some permanence in these shots. I don’t find any record of the track being moved. Usually ‘Motordrome’ refers to a smaller track that was something between the larger boardtracks and the sideshow “walls of death”; although I have seen early reports of mile-long boardtracks referred to as Motordromes as well.
Even without the ‘wall of death’ moniker, this boardtrack had a bit of notoriety amongst racers of the era as well. Boardtracks were known for their steep bankings—some as much as 68°—but unlike the more gently transitioning tracks, St. Louis’s track was referred to as a “pie tin” because of it’s abrupt transition from a gentle 15° banking to the steeper edges.
I can only imagine the terrifying prospect of making that transition up to the wall of the track. Just performing the feat on it’s own seems like a courageous act. Now imagine doing it in the thick of battle with a dozen other racers operating without brakes in a furious clamor to the front of the pack. There was a fine line indeed between motorsport and bloodsport.
The structure itself was remarkable. Just look at the photo of the steep bowl waiting to be surrounded by eager fans. The lamp posts are interesting as well, not only as an obvious hazard to avoid on the infield, but the number of lights make me wonder if the track hosted night racing. I’ve never read of nighttime board track races, but it seems somehow even more perilous. What a thrill!
I like this approach of video-as-snapshot that this piece from Squadra Sutge: little moments, brief glimpses, peeks into the Jarama Classic Moto race weekend. I also like that it focuses on the pits. The temptation is always to capture the track, but time spent in the paddock is time well spent. The pleasure of just hanging out with the vintage racing community is the unexpected treat of camaraderie that every vintage racer discovers at their first race meeting.
Beautifully shot and assembled. The Johnny Cash doesn’t hurt either.
Just look at the smoke these things were kicking out! It’s like the smoke screen from a certain DB-5.
There seems to be very little information out there about the Baby-Vanderbilt; presumably a support race for the 1915 Vanderbilt Cup; held that year in San Francisco as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Unlike the Vanderbilt, which ran as a longer road race throughout the area, the Baby-Vanderbilt seems to have been run entirely within the grandstand area as a sort of miniature circle-track race. This image is from a stereoscope of the start of the race, and provides a rare opportunity to see an early 3D(ish) image of a cyclecar race. I’ve animated it here to approximate the 3D view the stereoscope provides.
In my searches for more information, I came across a marvelous post at The Garage Blog telling the story of motorcyclist Bob Mibach pausing to dig through the chicken coop at a farm with a “motorcycles for sale” sign. In a moment of barn-find perfection, he came upon one of the Baby Vanderbilt racers: an Indian twin powered and very restorable little pile of smiles. Could it have been the Indian-powered machine that propelled Harry Hartz to victory in 1915?
There seems to be precious little information out there on the Baby-Vanderbilt. Here’s a thread on the Nostalgia Forum, that mentions film of the event that doesn’t seem to be online any longer. Please pass along any more info if you come across it.